Sunday 28 March 2021

Spring weekend of song in Leeds

Leeds Lieder - Joseph Middleton, Fatma Said - Leeds Town Hall (taken from live stream)
Leeds Lieder - Joseph Middleton, Fatma Said - Leeds Town Hall (taken from live stream)

Spring song weekend
; Bernadette Johns, Alexandra Standing, Fatma Said, Joseph Middleton, Laurence Kilsby, Ian Tindale, Kitty Whately, Madelaine Newton, Kevin Whately; Leeds Lieder at Leeds Town Hall

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 27 March 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A pair of recitals from Leeds with young artists and more established names in everything from exotically seductive Ravel to Shakespeare

This weekend (27 and 28 March 2021) Leeds Lieder launched its programme of Spring concerts with a pair of recital streamed live from Leeds Town Hall. On Friday soprano Fatma Said and pianist Joseph Middleton were joined by Equilibrium Young Artists Bernadette Johns (mezzo-soprano) and Alexandra Standing (piano) for a programme of Schubert, Bridge, Mahler, Ravel, Brahms and Schumann. Then on Saturday mezzo-soprano Kitty Whately, pianist Joseph Middleton and actors Madelaine Newton and Kevin Whately presented their programme This Other Eden preceded by Equilibrium Young Artists Laurence Kilsby (tenor) and Ian Tindale (piano) in Schubert, Schoenberg and Wolf.
Leeds Town Hall is hardly the most intimate of spaces, but it was credit to the lighting and filming of the performances that the festival managed to create quite an intimate performance atmosphere from the films.You effectively forgot about the Victorian splendour and concentrated on the music.
Leeds Lieder - Alexandra Standing, Bernadette Johns- Leeds Town Hall (taken from live stream)
Leeds Lieder - Alexandra Standing, Bernadette Johns
Leeds Town Hall (taken from live stream)
Friday's recital began with Bernadette Johns and Alexandra Standing in Schubert's Die junge Nonne. Johns sang with a bright mezzo-soprano voice, quite concentrated yet sometimes surprisingly emphatic despite interior moments giving us perhaps a less passive view of the young nun. Next came Frank Bridge's Come to me in my dreams, poised, centred and very much evoking the words rather than luxuriating in the tune. Johns and Standing finished with a pair of Mahler's Rückert Lider. First 'Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder' featured some wonderfully vivid piano playing from Standing, with Johns really making the words count and telling a story here. Johns began 'Um Mitternacht' with bleached tone supported by Standing's strong piano contribution, and the performance developed very much as a very touching exploration of youthful angst.

Looking very poised and stylish soprano Fatma Said epitomised the sense of seduction in Ravel's Shéhérazade but this wasn't an account of the cycle where the singer was content to luxuriate in lyrical beauty and gorgeous vocal tone, Said concentrated on the words, singing in an almost intimate manner addressing us personally. She was finely supported by Joseph Middleton who from the first notes of 'Asie' brought out the lovely rich textures of the piano part so we hardly missed the orchestra. 'Asie' was very impulsive, sometime intimate, sometimes dramatic and sometimes luxuriating in floated soprano tones, always with the feeling of the importance of that text (the poems are by Tristan Klingsor, a pseudoym of Leon Leclerc, from a set inspired by Rimsky Korsakov's orchestral work). 'La flûte enchantée' was wonderfully exotic feeling with rich textures and fluid words. Then 'L'indifferent' ended the cycle with a further sense of exotic drama.

By complete contrast, next came a group of Brahms' songs. Verzagen was wonderfully stormy, yet with lovely line, warm tone and fine words creating something touching. There was a folk-ish simplicity of Schwesterlein but also some great characterisation and story telling, with Said fining her voice down to a thread at the end.Lerchengesang featured floated notes over transparent piano, whilst Nicht mehr zu dir zu gehen brought this group to a darker finish with hints of Bach in the piano.

Schumann's late cycle Sechs Gedicthe und Requiem is one that seems to be coming into its own at the moment. Written in 1850 as a tribute to poet Nikolaus Lenau, Schumann was under the mistaken impression that the poet had died, but in fact Lenau only died when the cycle was complete, hence the addition of the final song setting Leberecht Dreves' 'Requiem'. 'Lied eines Schimiedes' was strong, but more lyrical than some performances. 'Meine Rose' was intimate and confiding, again the words to the fore here rather than the lovely melodic material. 'Kommen und Scheiden' was touching yet complex, whilst 'Die Sennin' flowed nicely and was almost impulsive, with Said fining her voice down at the end when the poet talks of departures and death. 'Einsamkeit' featured more Bachian piano writing (unsurprising as the music of Bach was one of Schumann's later interests), with Said in thoughtful mode. There was uncertainty hanging of 'Der schwere Abend' which developed into real darkness at the end. The final 'Requiem' had voice and piano intertwining together, both with great intensity and the final verse rather than being comforting was imploring.

For the final item in the programme, Said and Middleton returned to Ravel for the Cinq melodies populaires greques, with the two performers returning to a very different kind of exotic drama, captured with a great sense of style.

Leeds Lieder - Ian Tindale, Laurence Kilsby - Leeds Town Hall (taken from live stream)
Leeds Lieder - Ian Tindale, Laurence Kilsby
Leeds Town Hall (taken from live stream)
Saturday's recital opened with a group of songs from tenor Laurence Kilsby and pianist Ian Tindale which intelligently explored themes which would be continued in Kitty Whately's recital. So we had Schubert singing on lakes, Arnold Schoenberg lyrically enthusing about the forest, and Hugo Wolf hymning gardening (as personified by a lovely young woman) and Spring. 

Schubert's Auf dem See was full of youthful charm with Kilsby's vibrant lyric tenor complemented by Tindale sympathetic piano accompaniement. Auf dem Wasser zu singen was performed quite fast, clearly this young man was in something of a hurry with his seductions, but the result was flowing and engaging. Schoenberg's Waldsonne was surprisingly lyrical and romantic, yet with spicy harmonic moments in the piano. Finally there was a group of Wolf's Mörike Lieder. In 'Im Frühling' Kilsby had a touching way with the text, whilst there was a perky bounce to the delightful 'Der Gärtner' and 'Es ist's' was impulsive and engaging.

Kitty Whately was joined by her parents Madelaine Newton and Kevin Whately with pianist Joseph Middleton for their programme of song and readings, This Other Eden. We have heard them performing the programme before and the mezzo-soprano released it as her debut disc, but it is well conceived and a delight to re-encounter especially as Kitty Whately has re-thought some of music so that there were some new items, notably more songs by female composers.

Leeds Lieder - Kevin Whately, Joseph Middleton, Kitty Whately - Leeds Town Hall (taken from live stream)
Leeds Lieder - Kevin Whately, Joseph Middleton, Kitty Whately
Leeds Town Hall (taken from live stream)

This England
featured Ireland's Earth's Call which here rather recalled one of Ireland's descriptive piano sketches, almost as if he had written a richly textured piano piece with a vocal line, rather than pure song. By contrast, Warlock's My Own Country was more folk-ish though developing in complexity.

The Forests and Gardens section began with Stanford's La belle Dame sans merci, so clearly these are not comfortable places! Kitty Whately and Middleton began simply, almost folkishly but gripped us with the story and its vivid drama. Rebecca Clarke's The Salley Gardens was new to me. Lovely and touching, it was hardly folk-ish at all yet with a nice simplicity. Howells' King David began simply too, but developed into real rapture with a terrific nightingale from Middleton. Joan Trimble's Green Rain was quite traditional, well made and rather romantic but lovely. An Irish composer and pianist, Joan Trimble (1915-2000) was another discovery.

Fields and Meadows began with RVW's Silent Noon, where Kitty Whately brought out the narrative elements of the poem, alongside the sheer lyrical beauty of the song. Michael Head's A green cornfield had charm and simplicity which contrasted well with the disturbing elements in Christina Rossetti's poem The lambs of Grasmere. There was more Ireland, a piano solo this time, with Spring will not wait and this section ended with Ivor Gurney's The fields are full contrasting with dead pan Thomas Hardy in Adlestrop.

A pair of AE Housman poems, including that telling line 'Blue remembered hills' led into a traditional song Ma Bonny Lad which was very moving. And an account of The Great Silkie led to a terrific performance of Rebecca Clarke's The Seal Man, a song I can never hear too often!

The final section was devoted to Shakespeare, readings and songs interweaving. Elizabeth Maconchy's Ophelia's Song was very English and very lovely, whilst Korngold's Desdemona's Song took us to a rather different place, but was equally lovely. We ended with Joseph Horowitz' Lady Macbeth - a Scena which Kitty Whately and Joseph Middleton made a vivid tour de force, a dramatic mini opera.

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